Chess angels aided the wounded during World War II

May 30, 2018

As we mark Memorial Day this week, let us remember the ways chess has done its part to cheer and console those who go to war.

Many soldiers, sailors and airmen have been strong chess players, and chess has long been a popular way to pass the time in bivouacs, military hospitals and POW camps.

A 2015 World Chess Hall of Fame exhibit on chess and World War II shone a light on a little-known episode in which some of the country’s top women players took part in a program called “Chess for the Wounded,” playing chess with convalescing GIs and teaching other young women how to teach the game in military hospitals.

Among those who volunteered their time were champions such as Gisela Gresser, Leslie Bain and Mona May Karff, the three strongest women players of their day. The colorful, Russian-born Karff won or shared the women’s national title seven times between 1938 and 1974, and was one of the first Americans to earn the women’s international master title.

Her talent was on display in a game against Polish champion Krystyna Radzikowska at the 1971 women’s interzonal in Macedonia. In a Saemisch King’s Indian, Karff bests her higher rated opponent by repeatedly exploiting moves that weaken Black’s defenses.

After 17. Bh6 Ng8?! (Black is equal on 17...Be6 18. Bxg7+ Kxg7 19. h4 Qb6) 18. Bxg7+ Kxg7 19. Kg2 f6?! 20. h4 h5 21. Rfe1, White has a pleasant variety of pawn breaks to choose from, while the hole created at e6 will come back to haunt Radzikowska. Again, on 30. Nc2 h6?! (Rcb7 practically begs to be played here, with 31. Nd4 Rc3 32. Rxc3 Rxc3 33. Re3 Qc8 fine for Black) 31. Nd4 Kh7 32. Nfe6 Bxe6 33. Nxe6, Black’s knight on e5 is nice, but White’s knight on e6 is a monster, dominating the center and supporting threats on both wings.

The floodgates open after 34. Re3 Rxe3? (a last chance to cover up was 34...Rxc1 35. Qxc1 Ra7 36. Re2 Qb5 37. Rf2 Qa6!, keeping the White queen from infiltrating) 35. Qxe3 Ra7 36. Kg3 Rb7 (an admission that things have gone wrong, but 36...Ra2 37. Rc7 Qe8 38. Qb6 leaves Black tied down) 37. Qe2 Ra7 38. Qc2 Nf7 39. h5!, and suddenly there’s no way to hold back the White attack.

The finale: 39...g5 (Ne5 40. hxg6+ Nxg6 [Kxg6 41. Qh2 Qg8 42. f4 Nf7 43. Rc8! Qxc8 44. Qh5+ Kh7 45. Qxf7+ Kh8 46. Qg7 mate] 41. Rh1 Ra5 42. Rxh6+ Kxh6 43. Qh2+ Nh4 44. Qxh4+ Kg6 45. Qh5 mate) 40. e5+ Kh8 41. exf6 exf6 42. Qg6 Ne5 (Black may have banked on 42...Qg8, but 43. Rc8! wins on the spot) 43. Qxh6+ Kg8 44. Qxf6 Kh7 45. Nxg5+ Kg8 46. Qe6+, and Black resigned because 46...Kg7 47. Rc8 is deadly.


Chess is shot through with military concerts and martial imagery. Take, for instance, the famous “epaulette mate.”

It’s one of the first mating patterns a beginner learns: a king with who can’t escape a check because of the rooks crowding him on either side (resembling, it’s said, the ornamental shoulder decorations that adorn many military uniform).

It may be an elementary concept, but variations on the epaulette theme still pop up even in modern grandmaster play. One of the most famous recent examples was pulled off by Russian star Alexander Morozovich against Dutch GM Loek van Wely in a game from the 2001 Corus Chess Tournament. We pick things up from the diagrammed position, where van Wely as White has set a trap trying to survive Black’s raging attack.

Play continued: 18...Kb8! (and not 18...Qxf5?? 19. Be6+ and wins; now White’s knight legitimately hangs) 19. Qe6 Rxf5 20. h4 (trying to give his king some room; after 20. Qxd7 Rxd7, Black threatens 21...Rg7 mate) Bd6! (covering the h2 escape square) 21. Rf1 (the White rooks faithfully attend their king, while simultaneously signing his death warrant) Rg8+!!, and White resigned as the epaulette mate shows up on 22. Bxg8 Qg7 mate!

Karff-Radzikowska, Women’s Interzonal, Ohrid, Macedonia, 1971

1. c4 Nf6 2. Nc3 g6 3. d4 Bg7 4. e4 d6 5. f3 c6 6. Be3 a6 7. Qd2 b5 8. a3 Nbd7 9. Rd1 O-O 10. cxb5 cxb5 11. Nh3 Nb6 12. Nf2 Bd7 13. Be2 Rc8 14. O-O Nc4 15. Bxc4 Rxc4 16. g4 Kh8 17. Bh6 Ng8 18. Bxg7+ Kxg7 19. Kg2 f6 20. h4 a5 21. Rfe1 b4 22. axb4 axb4 23. Nd5 Qb8 24. Ne3 Rc7 25. Nd3 Rb7 26. d5 Nh6 27. Rc1 Nf7 28. b3 Ne5 29. Nf4 Rc8 30. Nc2 h6 31. Nd4 Kh7 32. Nfe6 Bxe6 33. Nxe6 Rc3 34. Re3 Rxe3 35. Qxe3 Ra7 36. Kg3 Rb7 37. Qf2 Ra7 38. Qc2 Nf7 39. h5 g5 40. e5+ Kh8 41. exf6 exf6 42. Qg6 Ne5 43. Qxh6+ Kg8 44. Qxf6 Kh7 45. Nxg5+ Kg8 46. Qe6+ Black resigns

David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email dsands@washingtontimes.com.

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